The assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the ultimate trigger that led to the emergence of the Great War. However, this incident did not solely cause the worldwide war, but rather, it acted as the catalyst, bursting the tensions built up prior, between the European superpowers. Such tensions built up from the late 19th century, from a range of issues, most notably from the competition between such powers. This article will briefly explore the build-up of such tensions and ultimately how it culminated with the emergence of the first World War.
The development of the ‘great powers’ in Europe was primarily linked to this exact escalation in tensions over numerous decades leading up to the assassination in 1914. These major powers, including Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungary and Russia were all empires that looked to expand their global power in a range of ways. The force of nationalism in these nations was a tremendous influence that was linked to this race for global power, linked to the decision-making of all rulers and governments, from Kaiser Wilhelm II in Germany to Tsar Nicholas II in Russia. This emphasis on building empires inevitably led each of these nations to utilise methods to expand their power across political, geographical, military and economic fronts.
As a result, imperialism and militarism were critical channels where these super powers extended their global power, thus leading to significant competition. With imperialism, the best example in the 19th century can be seen with the ‘Scramble for Africa’ (refer to map below), where European powers looked to take control of African colonies. This issue also contributed it to being a world war, rather than a continental war. The fierce European rivalries were also reflected across the rapid military expansion that took place between these countries, most notably with the naval arms race between Germany and Britain.
Furthermore the alliances created, with the Triple Alliance in 1882 between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy and Triple Entente between Britain, Russia and France in 1907, only made it inevitable that a world war would emerge from the huge competition across these powers.
With the short-term period leading up to the global conflict, the Balkan Wars were critical developments that enabled the eventual assassination to be the ultimate catalyst. With these wars (mainly the first), Russia firmly supported the recently independent Balkan nations, including Serbia, to strengthen their own power in the region, whilst Austria-Hungary maintained their aid to the opposing Ottoman Empire (and Bulgaria later). When these conflicts were paired with the evident tensions with ethnic minorities, who looked to break off and seek independence from the Austro-Hungarian empire , it was the final ingredient for the emergence of the global war.
On the 28th June, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, Sofia, were assassinated during their visit to Sarajevo, the capital of Serbia, by gunshots from Gavrilo Princip, a member of the Black Hand (after a failed attempt to bomb them in their car). The Black Hand, a nationalist group who looked to unite Serbs into one nation (Yugoslavia), saw the objective of the assassination was to attain independence for Southern Slavs in the Austro-Hungarian empire. The incident was critical, leading Austria-Hungary to declare war on Serbia (following Serbia’s rejection of Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum), and consequently, Russia’s support for Serbia led to their declaration of war on Austria-Hungary. Following this, the chain-reaction was swift, as the Triple Entente and Triple Alliance established decades ago led Germany, Britain and France (as well as their colonies and other allies) into the start of ‘the war to end all wars’.